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Be Careful About What You Read Online

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

A patient recently reported to me that they feel guilty about their impending divorce. Surprised to hear this because I thought these issues were settled, she informed me about some online articles she read about marriage and divorce. Specifically, what she read is that, when a marriage does not work out, the fault is always with the both of them. Consequently, her divorce must be her fault. The fact that they were married for only a brief time and he was repeatedly cheating on her both after and before the marriage did not make much of a difference after having read these articles. Forgetting all that had been worked on in therapy, she went back to believing that the divorce was her fault, all because of an article she read and misinterpreted.

The same problems exist with any information read online unless it comes from a reputable source and the information is then checked against what professionals know and advise. For example, most people today go online to learn about health and illness issues. There are enormous numbers of sites, both reputable and disreputable, that provide lots of health and medical information. The problem is that people get confused or start to think they have the illness they are reading about. This is a quagmire for a hypochondriac.

For the hypochondriac the search for health information easily turns into confirmation for their false belief about their suffering from the illness they just read about. Even non-hypochondriacs can experience this delusion. In medical school it is common for first year students to think they are reading about themselves as they study and read about all the various illness that afflict people. However, that thought immediately passes while, for the hypochondriac the information becomes reality about their health. Even if they do not suspect they have an illness, just reading about any illness can convince them that, indeed, they have that too.

The fact is that persistent fears about having an illness can trigger worries about potential medical bills, job loss and unnecessary visits to the doctor along with unnecessary tests. Of course, all of this increases feelings of stress and enormous anxiety.

I even know an aquaintence who is convinced he has medical diagnostic and treatment skills he learnded from the internet. Convinced of this somewhat delusional belief, he treats himself without consulting a physician and makes recommendations to friends who have one complaint or another. It would be humorous if it wasn’t potentially dangerous to himself and others who might listen and take this in. Sometimes a little bit of knowledge really can be a bad thing.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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